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Local correctional officers learn to adapt on the fly

Veteran correctional officer Ann Hannigan says she has always approached work by the motto, 'Look at (inmates) as a person and once you lose that, it's time to get out.'
Ann Hannigan and James Laplante are correctional officers at Central North Correctional Centre. They recently sat down with MidlandToday to talk about the day in the life of a correctional officer. They're part of each other's work and social circle. Mehreen Shahid/MidlandToday

James Laplante keeps a close eye on the door as he sits at the very end table of the cafe with his colleague Ann Hannigan.

Observing people intently is just one part of their jobs that has seeped into their personal lives.

"I don't feel comfortable with people behind me anymore," said Laplante, a correctional officer at Central North Correctional Centre. "I need to have people in my periphery."

He joined the Ministry of the Solictor General only two and a half years ago and has already started noticing differences in his personality.

"I've started to become a bit more reserved in public and in my personal life," said the 33-year-old, who likes to watch sports on TV and attend hockey and basketball games when he can. "There are times where there are stressful days at work when I just want to go home and watch TV and not talk to anyone."

Hannigan, who started in the field at the Toronto West Detention Centre more than 30 years ago, agreed with her younger peer.

"I'm not the same person I was 30 years ago," she said. "I don't see things as my non-correctional friends see them. Things that affect them, I can shrug off. I've lived by the motto, that if I can't change it, I can't worry about it; it will just eat you up."

But Hannigan said knows what Laplante is going through.

"When I first started, it was totally affecting me," the 52-year-old said. "When you're in a critical incident, you're wondering what do I do? My friends didn't get where I was coming from. When I started, there was a core group of officers and we're still friends. That becomes your support group."

Hannigan said she likes to relax by doing paddle-boarding, biking, golfing and snowshoeing.

The recent emphasis on improving opportunities for correctional services and other frontline workers to seek support for mental health has helped, said Laplante, who lives in Barrie.

"I have a good support system and that is key in this industry, whether it's friends or any other outside group," he said. "I listen to audiobooks or podcasts on my commute and it's made a world of difference. I'm embracing that commute and using that time to help myself disengage and calm down. Once I enter my house, all of that stuff that happened at work is left back. It's important for me to figure all this out at the start of my career."

But it takes a world of reserve to get to the point where one can learn to disconnect with the stress from work, said Laplante.

"It is difficult to ignore," he said, adding he's been spit at and almost been punched a couple times. "But you learn that walking away is a good thing. At the end of the day, we still have a job to do."

Without being able to go into specific details, Laplante said, no two days are the same.

An average day for an officer would begin with a look at the roster of duties, he said, noting that tells the officer where he or she will be spending the next 12 hours.

But tasks could change drastically during the day, something that hasn't changed during the current pandemic.

"I could get a call to go on an escort to the hospital or an incident could happen," he said.

COVID-19 has changed the routine is some ways, according to Hannigan. 

"Now, it's not as busy," she said. "We don't have visitation on weekend. We don't have any volunteer-run programs running. It's also a different day for the inmates, they're missing out on programs. If you sit around doing nothing all day, you get tired. (They) do get anxious and frustrated, and you can't blame them."

Laplante said he could divide his days into "regular duty" and "crisis days."

As an example, he said officers could get called to break up a fight.

"We go in and announce our presence and to break up the fight," he said. "If they do, we will escort them to an investigation room to find out what happened. That is the ideal situation. For most fights, we approach like this, and (inmates) break up the fight themselves."

Then there can be times when officers have to go in and physically intervene to break up the fight.

"We, as officers, have to be very careful because staff can be injured when that happens," he said. "We also have to keep in mind the inmates don't get injured either."

Another extreme level that could happen occurs when the fighting continues even after officers have attempted to break it up, Laplante noted.

"Sometimes, they will become physically assaultive towards us," he said. "This will, in turn, lead us to subdue them. A lot of times this will involve the inmates being placed on the ground and physical restraints will have to be applied, handcuffing them."

Hannigan has also been in a few physical altercations in her days on the floor.

"It happens," she said. "Your adrenaline goes through the roof, but you still have a job to do at the end of the day. Does it affect me after? Absolutely."

Sometimes, Hannigan said she second guesses herself.

"Was I in the wrong place at the wrong time? You question what you did," she said, adding that she also replays the situation over and over in her mind.

Hannigan said she has learned to get past those effects through her external and internal support groups.

"I'm part of the Institutional Stress Management Team," she said. "When there's an incident that's out of the norm for us, I will talk to the staff to make sure they have avenues to talk to. I also know that I have the support of my family and friends." 

As a younger officer, Laplante said inmates often approach him as a some sort of challenge.

'It's a lot of showboating, but once we have them one-on-one, their demeanor changes," he said.

Hannigan said she has successfully used that approach herself a few times.

"In the past, I've pulled the offender out of the cell and talked to him one-to-one in front of everybody else," she said, adding that usually gets the inmate to change his behaviour. "They'll push your buttons to engage you. If you know your environment and pick your battles wisely." 

Hannigan said her decision to engage is also based on what has been said or insinuated.

"Is it worth my mental health and stress to engage in that verbal communication?" she said.

Over the three decades she's been in law enforcement, Hannigan said, she has approached her work with something a senior officer once said to her.

"When I first started in the ministry, I had a senior officer say to me, 'Look at (inmates) as a person and once you lose that, it's time to get out,'" she said, adding she always tries to separate the person from the crime.

"You become empathetic to them and you listen to them. Sometimes, it's just about that. If you understand what their issues are, you know they just need to be validated."

Laplante said the same approach works for him, especially if he comes across someone with a native background.

"If it is an Indigenous individual I'm dealing with, I can ask them about their background," he said. "Depending on the situation, I will report back to them I am also native and that builds a connection. It has helped out in a couple incidents."

Laplante said he credits this to his high willingness to learn.

"I do strive in that aspect," he said. "When questions arise in specific situations, I turn to more senior and seasoned officers." 

That's exactly what Hannigan said she tell younger officers.

"It's what you make of it," she said. "If you want to make a career of it, you can move around in the ministry, or if that's not what you want to do, that's fine, too. You have to have your end goals in sight and deal with your day at work and don't take it home with you."